Healthy Minds for Life A Message from Lee Ryan, Professor and Head of the Psychology Department at the University of Arizona Lifelong Learning for Brain Health and Well-Being
There’s an alternative to brain training apps, however, that has promise for maintaining brain health and our well- being as we age. Lifelong learning is just what it sounds like – people seeking out educational experiences at every age that are challenging, engaging, and meaningful. In our student years up to and including college, our full- time job is learning, as we build a base of knowledge and skill that leads to a career. After we join the workforce, in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, learning is often directed at professional development or upgrading skills that can increase our competitiveness. For older adults, educational experiences more often focus on personal interests and life enrichment. They can take many forms, including non-credit academic courses, lecture series, book clubs, educational travel, or community service activities. What these activities have in common is that they provide ways to explore new knowledge, stay engaged with the community, and form new social relationships. And, at the same time, we are challenging our brains. There is growing evidence suggesting that lifelong learning has benefits for brain aging. For example, adults in their 60’s and 70’s who took courses to learn a new language showed improvements in executive functions, a set of abilities that allow us to control and manipulate information in our minds. Taking a course not only provides the opportunity to gain new knowledge, but it also brings people together who share common interests. Meaningful social interaction is incredibly important for our emotional well-being, which also benefits brain health. Studies have shown that individuals who continue to learn, stay active, and maintain strong social networks as they age are more likely to maintain their cognitive abilities in later life. A powerful way to engage in lifelong learning is through community
If you search the internet with the term “brain games”, you’ll find a mind-numbing (pardon the pun) number of apps for phones and tablets that claim to improve your memory, increase concentration, and even slow the brain aging process. Some researchers have argued that daily activities, even engaging ones like reading the newspaper or playing chess, will not provide the kind of mental practice that is required to strengthen cognitive processes like memory or attention. According to them, we should consider the brain like the muscles of our body, which can be strengthened and toned through targeted exercise. Brain training apps promise to deliver carefully crafted exercises, with just the right degree of difficulty and repetition, to give us the kind of ‘work-out’ our brains need to stay sharp. At least, that’s what they tell us. And, clearly, a lot of people believe it. Brain training is now a multi-billion dollar industry. But whether brain games work or not has been the topic of much scientific controversy. Indeed, some researchers have shown that carefully controlled cognitive exercises can improve scores on tests of basic cognitive skills, like memory. But other researchers have highlighted the inconsistency of the evidence across many, many studies – for every study that finds a benefit, there’s another study that doesn’t. Most importantly, there is no compelling evidence that brain training results in actual benefits to activities that are important for our daily lives, like remembering to take your medication, remembering the name of a recent acquaintance, or making better decisions about your finances. While brain training may have some positive effects, it’s clear that many companies have wildly exaggerated the potential benefits of using their apps.
volunteering. As a volunteer, you have the opportunity to learn new skills or to share your own expertise and knowledge with others. You’re likely to connect with a variety of new people from diverse backgrounds, leading to new friendships. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University showed that volunteering was associated with better memory performance and improved problem solving skills among older adults. Equally important, they found that older volunteers were less stressed and happier – volunteering gave meaning and a sense of purpose to their lives. My advice – forget the brain training games on your computer or smart phone. Instead, find activities that will feed your brain and your emotional well-being at the same time. Take a course in poetry or bird-watching, attend some astronomy lectures, or volunteer your time at the local school or the food bank. Your brain will thank you. To learn more about the Precision Aging Network, visit our website at https:// precisionagingnetwork.org/. If you’d like to hear more about our studies, or if you’d be interested in participating, send us an email at healthymindsforlife@email. arizona.edu. We’ll tell you about some great opportunities to get involved. I’ll look forward to hearing from you! Lee Ryan is a Professor and Head of the Psychology Department at the University of Arizona. She is a researcher studying aging and Alzheimer’s disease, and is a member of the Precision Aging Network.
May 2023, Never Too Late | Page 17
Pima Council on Aging
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